As Sri Lanka spirals violently downwards, both the Colombo government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) prefer to project themselves as victims of a war forced upon them. In all the incidents of the past weeks, including the claymore mine attack on a civilian bus in Kebbitigollawa, the gruesome murder of a Tamil family in Mannar District on 8 June, the shocking killing of civilians in Jaffna District, and the bombing of a church compound in the north, the government and LTTE accused each other of outrages while denying their own culpability.
The horrific bus bombing, where an unprecedented number of civilians died or were wounded, could have been the LTTE’s way of retaliating for the difficulties in which it finds itself. The organisation is bitter at the ban slapped on it by the European Union, which has made it an outcast in the world’s most influential countries. Some of the Tamil Tigers’ leading cadres have been killed in recent weeks by subversive forces of which the government denies having any knowledge, and a large number of pro-LTTE civilians have also been killed in brutal fashion.
The new phase of warfare in Sri Lanka is likely to be very costly to civilians. Killings are already taking place on a regular basis in the northeast, for which any responsibility is denied. As a result, all political activity in the region has come to a halt, as people live in mortal fear of getting on the wrong side of the gun carried by any one of several forces. Amidst all of this, the targeting of international NGO workers is a new phenomenon that has affected their relief activities. And the northeast is where these agencies are most needed.
Civilians living outside the northeast are also in danger from the LTTE’s violent agenda. Meanwhile, the government is not above threatening peace activists who argue for a negotiated political solution. A parliamentary committee is presently investigating NGOs deemed to be threats to national security. In the days ahead, organisations critical of the government and the LTTE are likely to be more cautious in the work they do.
The path out of this vicious quagmire is more or less clear, but there is no one to take it. There is no dispute on what needs to be done by the government and the LTTE, as per clear guidelines set out by the peace process ‘co-chairs’, the EU, Japan, Norway and the United States. They ask the belligerents to renounce violence as a tool of conflict resolution, and also call for far-reaching political reforms for which the state would have to make concessions. This is what peace activists of Sri Lanka have been demanding all along, but it does not look as if the warring parties are in a mood to listen to the imperatives of peace. The situation looks grim in Sri Lanka.
To repeat: the government of Mahinda Rajapakse must acknowledge the need for changes in the country’s constitutional structures so as to address minority Tamil grievances. At the same time, it must provide full explanation to the majority Sinhala population so that there is receptivity to change. On the other hand, the LTTE must transform from a military-led formation to a political organisation. For the sake of a population suddenly shoved back into the jaws of war, this is what is required of Mahinda Rajapakse and Velupillai Prabhakaran.